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Cities Turn to Open Source Data to Fill Information Gaps

New technology platforms are helping governments access the power of data aggregation and analysis, which can tell officials what the public is thinking and how to better speak to their concerns.

digital rendering of a megaphone coming out of a computer
Since its advent, social media has provided unique opportunities for governments. More and more frequently, officials and agencies are able to enhance citizen engagement, communicating more effectively with their constituencies through social platforms.

At the same time, new forms of social data collection and analysis are a means by which governments can better understand how their communities are thinking and feeling about local events and issues, as well as about government programs and agencies themselves.

A recent webinar showed how new analysis tools have played a role in helping governments navigate this year's biggest crises — namely the COVID-19 pandemic and the nationwide protests over the police killing of George Floyd.

The webinar, titled Local Gov 2.0: How L.A. and Chicago are Leveraging Tech to Manage Multiple Crises featured conversations with Amanda Daflos, chief innovation officer of Los Angeles, and Derrick Brownlee, managing deputy chief information officer of Chicago.

Recent years have shown the diversity of use for social media data: Schools integrate data collection into their public safety processes — collecting and analyzing students' online activity as a means of screening for potentially violent or criminal behavior. Similarly, police agencies have consistently used social data to aid in their investigations, and to monitor big local events for signs of trouble or crime. 

In Chicago and Los Angeles, two high-population cities with ongoing fights to contain coronavirus and deal with civil unrest, administrators have used tools from ZenCity, an Israeli start-up specializing in open source data aggregation and analysis, to better understand how to respond to these ongoing and complex events.

"In the world of COVID, my role has become acutely [about] data and research and helping the city to shape our knowledge around COVID and then also shaping the solutions that we're bringing to the table," said Daflos, explaining how data analytics tools have helped to supplement her department's overall research related to the pandemic. "The point is data can help us," she added.

Understanding how citizens think and feel about controversial, frequently interconnected issues like police violence, protest movements, social distancing and mask wearing, has all helped administrators understand how to juggle these sometimes conflicting priorities.

Particularly in L.A., which saw some of the biggest protests and has recently had one of the highest rates of coronavirus infection in the country, officials have worked to finess their communications with the public, said Daflos. 

"We've used it for COVID, we also used it throughout the George Floyd protests. ... It was a really important tool for understanding what people were feeling and thinking about," said Daflos.

According to ZenCity, the platform can analyze sentiment by city-centric topics like traffic projects, specific department activities and policies, while also locating that sentiment geographically in a highly specific manner. An AI-algorithm assists in this analysis and categorization.

Brownlee said that his Chicago team has used the data tools to analyze a number of different local issues, including measuring public sentiment around re-opening activities and mask wearing. At the same time, it also helped the city's health department track and identify health-related misinformation surrounding COVID.

The tool was even used to identify clusters of people reporting food poisoning after eating at a particular restaurant, which then led to a food inspector being sent to that address, he said.

"The whole mask issue conversation is an interesting one. It has become a kind of political football," Brownlee, referencing some online skepticism about mask-wearing. "The purpose for using [the tool] was to understand what the sentiment was in the public and identify different outreach methods on how you could more effectively inform residents of the benefits and how this was going to help."

Lucas Ropek is a former staff writer for Government Technology.